The bottom line is simple. Despite the green fumes of envy from the clueless pundits and money spinning ignorable others, we stay Top of the League.
This was a historic day in the English Premier League, when goal line technology was used for the first time to the benefit of the Northern Oilers and the disappintment of the new boys from Cardiff. This was also a day when Arsenal had a job to do at home against Fulham. Fulham has had quite a Mauleen from all and sundry, and at The Home of Football they were clearly expected to receive a battering. Arsenal were Top of the League before the game. Despite the accumulation of injuries including a rather serious one to Theo Walcott, and despite the disappointment of fans from a typically unimpressive transfer window, we were not expected to drop points at home against an unfancied opposition.
However, Fulham came out with purpose, with a revamped central defence sporting the fit-again captain Brede Hangeland and “recalled from loan” six-and-half-footer Burn. The midfield sported the hacker mercenary duo of Parker and Sidwell, and ahead of them a frontline sporting one evergreen Dimitar Berbatov. At goal was the World Cup finalist “Mr Dictionary” Dutchman Stekelenburg, with 10 distinct letters in his surname (I kid you not!!!!!).
Arsenal came out with an unchanged starting lineup, which had only one omission from Raddy’s carefully considered choice. The little master Santi Cazorla was chosen over the little Mozart Tomáš Rosický. The “masked Czech” was left on the bench to nurse a delicate nose flattened in a previous brawl. Other than Monreal on the left, the backline was familiar – Mert, Kos and Sagna. The defensive midfield positions were manned by Flamini and Wilshere. Özil, Santi and Gnabry together with front-man Ollie completed the attacking line up.
For me, the starting line up made good sense. The left and right backs had freedom to roam upwards along the flanks. Flamini and Jack were positioned to start the cleanup operations and link forward. For me, the movement through the centre is perhaps the best way to use Jack’s speed and youthful exuberance. The wing play of Sagna and Monreal allows the attacking midfield freedom to move laterally through interchanging positions. This is perhaps the most natural movement for both Santi and Gnabry, and it offers the opportunity to use any lack of tightness in the opposition back four.
Arsenal fans everywhere, including the venerable Arsenal Arsenal family, have been clamouring for the addition of a striker in January, and that wish of a post-Christmas present has so far been steadfastly ignored by “Mr Santa” Le Boss. Giroud had unfortunately misplaced his shooting shoes during his nocturnal escapades on one fateful night in Kiev last November. Hence, the forty million and one pound question was: where would the goals come from? Despair not. The answer came later during the game.
Anyway, the game commenced in earnest. The initial exchanges were tasty. 5 minutes on, Gnabry moved inwards deftly from the right, and found a gap to send the ball forward, Jack met this with aplomb and fed on to Özil on the right end of the 6-yard box. Instead of shooting himself, the German wizard tried to pass to Giroud, but Hangeland deftly hacked away. Again, 20 minutes on, Gnabry cut in from the right and fed Olivier Giroud at the edge of the 18-yard box, but he fired the ball high and wide. In between, Arsenal continued to boss the game, Wilshere being particularly enterprising, but failed to create clear chances.
Something was amiss. I thought there was lack of coordination between the attacking midfielders at the centre. The way Arsenal plays, all three of them have liberty to move and exchange places. On the day, this exchange was not working quite right. When Gnabry moved in from the right and released the ball, he continued to move to the centre, but the gap on the right was not seamlessly filled in by the other guys. The same happened when Santi moved in from the left. There was crowding in the centre and the game could not be spread wide. As a result, the Fulham defence was able to close their gaps easily.
At the same time, Fulham were somewhat potent on their rare saunters upfront. On 27 minutes, Berbatov’s cross was cleared out of the box and fell to Steve Sidwell, who launched an audacious 20 yard stunner that Szczesny had to deftly fist over. The Pole made two other crucial interceptions in one on one situations, diving to the feet of Dejagah first, and taking the ball off the feet of Kacaniklic the second time. In both cases he superbly avoided a touch with the rushing shooters. Fantastic stuff.
Together, the robust rebuttal of Arsenal’s advances continued, through a combination of skillful defence, agricultural mercenary action and sheer luck. Some freekicks were conceded but no bookings – surprise, surprise!! From one of these freekicks, the good guys produced their first clear chance. From about 20 yards out, Santi drilled his kick into the wall and the rebound fell to Sagna on the edge of the box. His first timer glided through the crowd towards the bottom right corner, but Stekelenburg brought off an amazing reflex save, and immediately after from Giroud’s follow-up. Giroud was flagged offside, but the Dutch goalkeeper would not have known. Brilliant play.
In between, nothing much had worked for the Arsenal attack. Wilshere and Gnabry were enthusiastic without much success, Serge attempting three wayward and juvenile long rangers, and Jack trying fancy one-twos with Giroud that, unlike the Norwich game, did not quite work out. Flamini had a quiet game, doing his basic job without producing any moment of inspiration, but almost contributed to a disaster. Almost at the end of the half, Per Mertesacker ran in to head a ball, bending himself low to the ball, and Flamini lent his arm in support. Per dashed into Flamini, hurt his neck and stayed down for an anxious few minutes. To the relief of Arsenal fans, no serious damage was done. The teams went in at halftime all square. Fulham were competent in defence, and Arsenal attacked all half without much conviction. It seemed they could go up another gear, though.
At half time, there were plenty of nerves, and some disagreement among the faithful followers on Arsenal Arsenal who were unlucky not to be at THOF. Clearly, the shape and formation of the team was not quite right. The game was not spread wide. Raddy felt Gnabry should stick to the wing and not fight for space with Santi. Arnie thought, dare I say so, that being the central guy, Özil had the responsibility of moving over when either of Santi or Gnabry moved to the centre. In any case, a job needed to be done. Raddy moved over from lager to wine, Arnie continued to provide bloopers, and Rocky sat down with pen and paper to record Plobert’s errors of commission and omission.
As the second half commenced, Arsenal came out in earnest, trying to use the flanks better and upping the pace of the game. But Fulham continued to provide some potency on the counter, Berbatov holding the ball up well until support arrived from the other players. These attacks were clinically thwarted by the Mertesacker-Koscielny duo, with able support from Sagna and Monreal mainly, and everyone else in the team as well.
10 minutes into the half, Arsenal produced their first significant action. Gnabry provided a moment of individual brilliance, moving in from the right side-stepping three defenders before firing in a low shot which was spectacularly saved by Maarten Stekelenburg. Then, Monreal whipped the ball in from the left, Sagna’s effort was cleared off the goal line. Gnabry poked it rebound forward and somehow Fulham again cleared off the line. The stalemate continued. Nervy times.
The first moment of the Santi magic came on 57 minutes. Santi picked a ball from the left, passed through to Ollie on the top of the box and continued his run in. Giroud took a ball with his back to goal, flicked out a one-touch lay-off into the path of Wilshere, who picked up Santi on his run. Santi, oh beauty, slided in and with his right foot fired into the goal from close-rage. Absolutely lovely team goal. The Emirates erupted in unison, well, except the hapless away fans I suppose. Celebrations ensued. Giroud wrapped his arms around Santi and made some strange arm gestures that I found hard to interpret. Beyond, of course, the unimaginable!!
Within 5 minutes, there was the second piece of Santi brilliance. This time, with his left foot. Monreal crossed the ball in from the left, and as it was hacked out from the box, Santi rushed in from the right, and fired in from the edge of the box into the corner of the net. 2-0 to The Arsenal.
The march continued, the fans sang loud and clear. Poldi replaced Gnabry, and launched a superb rasper from 20 yards out that was somehow fingered on to the upright by the Dutch goalkeeper. The Ox came on very late and almost got his head to a cross from the left, but not quite.
Still some nervy moments at the end. Mert sauntered on one of his escapades and failed to intercept a loopy cross which Szczesny failed to reach as well. Bent stepped around him and somehow missed from close range. Under pressure from Koscielny of course, who had an absolutely brilliant game. In the final minute, The Ox launched into an agricultural heave at the edge of the box, and off the resulting freekick, the Pole in goal spilled the ball in the first attempt and somehow grabbed for dear life in the second. Szczesny the Savior, on his 100th game for Arsenal as well. Absolutely fantastic performance from him.
Thus the game ended after a nervy extended injury time. Job well done. We are Top of the League. This was a thorough team performance, and the tentative scores reflect this.
Szczesny 8. Superb saves. His was a very crucial performance. Coming out and not reaching the ball in injury time the only major blip.
Mertesacker 6. Good composed performance. Missed a loopy ball towards the end that led to the Bent chance. A couple of other similar errors in judgment that could have proved costly on another day.
Koscielny 8. Superb. One of the true stars on the day. What a great performance, what a big heart!
Sagna 7. Good performance in attack and defence. Two good shots on goal.
Monreal 7. Like Sagna, good in defence and in overlapping. His cross led to the second goal.
Flamini 6. Decent composed performance without being inspirational.
Wilshere 8. Good enterprising and credible performance. Assist for the first goal. Fantastic.
Özil 7. Good performance. Nice interchanges and distribution. Would perhaps be more proactive in organisation of shape and formation on another day.
Cazorla 8. What can you say, except for Wow! Superb. Two goals. The star on the day. Man of the Match! The little master is back.
Gnabry 7. Very good performance. A future star. The development continues.
Giroud 6. A decent day in office. Missed a few chances. Tried a lot of fancy lay-offs that did not work. But one of these did, and it led to the first goal.
Podolski 7. Came on for the final 20 minutes. A superb effort on goal. The rehab continues.
The Ox. Too short to have a score. But nice to have him back. Almost at the end of a cross on the right post, but not quite. However, a terrible tackle in the end that on another day could have proved costly. The rehab has begun in earnest.
What lessons did we learn? Plenty of positives to take. Yes, this is work in progress, yes the loss of Theo is costly, but this is a team where everyone does his bit and steps up on the day. And yes, the conviction that we are resilient in defence and attack, and are not going to give away easy points. The defence and goalkeeping performance was superb. 10th clean sheet in the league, 8 clean sheets out of 9 games at home. Santi coming back to his best, the rehab of Poldi and The Ox continues. Onwards and upwards!